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Belgian police illegally used facial recognition software

Photo by Helen Lyons/The Brussels Times.

Despite explicit denial by the Federal Police, it appears that the Belgian police force did use the facial recognition tool Clearview AI even though such use is illegal.

The information first surfaced in reporting from Buzzfeed News around a year and a half ago, according to Bruzz.

Buzzfeed obtained a leaked customer list from Clearview AI and Belgian Federal Police appeared on it, with evidence that they used the service anywhere from “101 to 500 times,” resulting from a conference at Europol in October 2019 where national police forces were given trial licenses for the software.

At the time of Buzzfeed’s reporting, a spokesperson for the Federal Police denied that the software had ever been used, saying there was no evidence of use and that police had no plans to use it in the future.

But in response to parliamentary questions from Vooruit, CD&V, PVDA-PTB, Ecolo, Groen, Vlaams Belang and PS among others, Minister of the Interior Annelies Verlinden (CD&V) now confirms that the illegal face recognition was indeed used.

“In October 2019, two researchers as part of a Europol Task Force on Victim Identification were given access to a trial licence that was valid for a limited time,” Verlinden said in parliament.

According to Le Soir, it was only for testing purposes.

Police conducted an internal investigation into the matter at the beginning of September and established that the software was used for a limited number of consultations, but further investigation showed that searches were also carried out at the request of Child Focus and with cases from abroad.

Verlinden emphasised, however, that the software is not used structurally and that Belgian law does not allow it.

Clearview collects billions of images from Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, among others, without being asked, and can then link images from sources like a surveillance camera to an identity or profile on social media.

Because these images are collected without permission, the company has been sued in the US and Canada, among other countries.

The UN has called for a moratorium on facial recognition software, citing various ethical concerns.

The software has never been legal in Belgium.

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